Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade mayor may bolt GOP to become independent

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez speaking to reporters after his 2014 State of the County address in February.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez speaking to reporters after his 2014 State of the County address in February. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Is the Republican Party about to lose its top elected official in Miami-Dade County? On Monday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez strongly hinted he was thinking of dropping GOP registration in order to run for reelection as an independent.

In a radio interview, Gimenez confirmed he “may be” changing his party affiliation. “I’m a registered Republican right now,” he told the Gray Zone politics show on Miami station WZAB-AM (880).

Fred Menachem, a co-host of the show, started the exchange with the question: “Are you still a Republican?”

Gimenez replied: “Look, I hold a nonpartisan position. And what bothers me is you somehow get labeled because you’re in a party.

“I’m an independent thinker,” Gimenez continued during a phone segment with the show. “I support Democrats and Republicans. I’m registered as a Republican right now. But I take my position as a nonpartisan very, very seriously.”

When asked if he would be changing his party affiliation, Gimenez told the show: “I may be. We’ll see about that.”

It would be a high-profile defection for the Miami-Dade Republican Party, which backed Gimenez’s 2012 reelection bid. But it notably did not support him in 2011, when Gimenez ran against former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, a much more partisan Republican. Gimenez has rarely attended local GOP meetings.

Though he considers himself fiscally conservative, Gimenez is more liberal on social policy. He won with the support of left-leaning groups such as SAVE, the county’s leading LGBT-rights organization. Last year, Gimenez joined the nonpartisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns founded by perhaps the most famous independent municipal leader, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Gimenez would become perhaps the best known elected official in the county with no party affiliation. The only Miami-Dade commissioner without party affiliation is Xavier Suarez. The appointed — not elected — schools superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, is also registered NPA.

When he first ran for mayor in 2011, Gimenez admitted he hadn’t voted for Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2010, casting his ballot for Democrat Alex Sink instead.

This year, a public Gimenez endorsement of Scott, who is running for reelection, was rumored for months. But it never took place, though Gimenez headlined a joint fundraising event for Scott in March.

Gimenez’s radio remarks follow a major GOP defeat in county politics when incumbent County Commissioner Lynda Bell, a Republican, lost her reelection bid to Democrat Daniella Levine Cava. County offices are officially nonpartisan, but the commission race became a proxy battle for both parties.

Gimenez faces reelection in 2016, and has already said he intends to seek a second full term. Local Democratic officials said the Levine Cava race was a run-up to posing a challenge to the mayor.

While attending a tourism luncheon later in the day Monday, Gimenez declined to elaborate on his radio remarks. “I have nothing else to say,” he told a reporter.

While dropping his GOP affiliation might sit well with independent voters, it hardly inoculates Gimenez against drawing a 2016 reelection challenger from the political left. Without party affiliation, Gimenez could also risk drawing a GOP challenger, especially if the party continues to do well in this year’s midterms. Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 15 percent in Miami-Dade, yet the party has only a slight advantage so far in the number of its registered voters casting pre-Election Day ballots.

Gimenez’s hint at a change of party comes a week after he visited Washington D.C. to meet with White House and Federal Transit Administration officials — that is, with Democrats — over economic development and public-transportation projects. Earlier this year, he hired Michael Hernández, a Democratic campaign operative and local surrogate during President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection, to be his chief communications officer.

One of Gimenez’s sons, Carlos J. Gimenez, works in Coral Gables with noted Democratic political consultant Freddy Balsera. Hernández also worked for Balsera Communications.

Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade GOP, said he hasn’t spoken to Gimenez about the mayor’s potential party exit.

“I hope he doesn’t do it,” Diaz said. “You can be an independent thinker and be a member of a party.”

He recalled Gimenez’s State of the County speech in February, which highlighted cost-cutting and other right-leaning budget measures.

“He’s never been a big party guy, but his thinking is clearly conservative. His state of the county address — you could have thought that it was a GOP convention,” Diaz said. “It had all my guys giddy.”

Then came what promised to be a bruising fight with labor unions. But they were helping unseat Bell. Even before the August primary election, Gimenez quickly softened his stance over requiring worker pay concessions to make contract deals, prompting Bell to chastise the mayor after her loss for abandoning allies like her who had backed a harder line.

“I think he probably saw what the unions and state Democratic Party did with Lynda Bell. Maybe he’s trying to prevent the state Democratic Party coming after him,” Diaz said.

“He’s got a reelection coming in a county that is overwhelmingly Democratic.”